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It’s the bane of every nervous flyer, from those with a mild fear of flying to those who carry their own barf bags when they travel. That’s right: we’re talking about turbulence — the dreaded rocking and rolling of an airborne plane that at its worst can be downright violent. Here are six things you need to know the next time the pilot asks you to buckle up for a bumpy ride.
1. It’s Not as Scary as It Seems…
Though it ranks as perhaps the #1 concern of airline passengers, and can sometimes have even veteran flyers white-knuckling ’till the wheels touch down, turbulence during a flight is perfectly normal, and almost never puts the aircraft in jeopardy.
“From our perspective, turbulence is, for lack of a better term, normal,” said commercial pilot Patrick Smith, host of AskThePilot.com. “In really rare cases, it can injure people and damage aircraft, but in practice it’s a comfort and convenience issue rather than a safety issue.”
In a nutshell, “turbulence” is a coverall term for an instability in the air around a plane caused by winds, air pressure, temperature differentials, nearby storms, jet streams, weather fronts and other atmospheric conditions. In aviation, turbulence is categorized by severity, from light to extreme.
“Looking at it from a more scientific perspective, turbulence is, for lack of a better way to put it, just wind,” Smith said. “Often we pilots don’t even think about it. In the minds of the passengers, the plane is plummeting hundreds or thousands of feet, but we might only see a twitch of 10 or 20 feet on the altimeter.”
80 percent of turbulence commercial aircraft experience is light, Smith said. In his entire career, he’s never encountered extreme turbulence, and only “a sprinkling” of severe turbulence.
Sticklers can differentiate regular turbulence from wake turbulence, or the instability in the air caused by another plane passing ahead, usually above. Some planes are notorious for causing more wake than others — we’re looking at you, pre-winglet Boeing 757! — which is why air traffic controllers make a point of putting extra space between large and small planes.
2. …But It’s Getting Worse
So you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that turbulence isn’t as life-threatening as it seems from row 29, seat C. That said, you should brace yourself for more and more turbulence in the coming years. Blame man-made climate change, which has introduced chaos into weather patterns and made storms more violent. “Turbulence is a symptom of the weather from which it spawns,” Smith said. Still, not every flight is going to be like the Delta dash into a hurricane that made news last month.
3. No, Your Plane Isn’t Going Down
Still convinced you’re about to see the pearly gates because of turbulence on your flight? Is that dramatically spilt coffee suddenly more authoritative than an active commercial pilot and science? Then consider that in the history of aviation, turbulence has been the culprit in only a handful of crashes. Most notably, in 1966 British Overseas Airways Flight 911 from Tokyo to Hong Kong, when a pilot changed routing so the passengers could get a closer look at Mt. Fuji, only to be overwhelmed by extremely violent air currents (possibly exacerbated by the mountain) that took off the tail fin of the Boeing 707 and caused it to fall to the ground. All 124 people aboard were killed (though it’s unlikely modern aircraft would suffer the same problems).
Still, turbulence can be a serious matter, causing injury or even death even if it doesn’t bring an entire modern plane down. The vast majority of these incidents happen when passengers aren’t buckled in their seats. Crew members, because of the nature of their responsibilities, are far more likely to be hurt during turbulence than actual passengers.
4. Turbulence Is Not Always Avoidable
You should resign yourself to experiencing some turbulence on just about any flight. Where you are in the world or what time of day or night doesn’t guarantee or offer a respite from turbulence, Smith said — though the air around mountains or mountain ranges does tend to be more severe, as might’ve been the case in the Mt. Fuji crash. But rest assured that, in the cockpit, the crew is doing everything they can do to avoid or minimize it.
Modern technology is a wonder, with airline meteorologists providing up-to-the-minute weather models to steer planes away from the worst areas. Pilots also help each other out with updates — think of them as all being active members of a Waze app in the sky.
When turbulence is unavoidable, pilots may also slow down their craft to keep the shake to a minimum. Each particular model of aircraft has what’s known as its turbulence penetration speed, which is its ideal velocity for getting through rough air.
5. It’s Worse in the Back of the Plane
Though bigger planes like A380s and 747s tend to absorb turbulence better than smaller ones, there aren’t any hard and fast rules about which aircraft are better at handling it than others, Smith said. “There’s no significant difference, though in people’s minds certain planes feel bumpier than others,” he explains. “That’s not to say you won’t have a very smooth ride on a small regional jet and a bumpy one on a large jet.”
That said, if you feel like you’re getting a rougher ride in Row 40 than your friends in first class, you’re probably right.
“The smoothest seats tend to be more or less in the center of the plane over the wing, because that’s close to the plane’s center of lift and gravity,” Smith said.
Because the center of lift and gravity on a plane usually isn’t at the midpoint of the plane in terms of length, the front of the plane suffers less turbulence than the rear.
“Sometimes we’ll be in the cockpit going through a little bit of bumpiness and we’ll get a call from the flight attendant in the aft galley asking us to put the seatbelt sign on because it’s really bumpy in the back,” Smith said.
6. Buckle. Your. Seatbelt.
By now, you should realize that the seatbelt sign doesn’t go on during a flight just because the pilots are maliciously trying to keep you from using the bathroom. The single best thing you can do when turbulence hits is to get into your seat and buckle up.
“It’s the smartest thing a passenger can do when it gets bumpy,” Smith said.
And what’s the best cure-all to order from the flight attendant if you feel certain turbulence is going to hit during the meal service?
“A strong cocktail,” he said. Just make sure you hold onto your glass.
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